Is red wine good for you?
Wine is a drink that evokes images of good food and festive occasions. Good wine goes with good company. Perhaps wine brings back memories of student parties with lots of cheap plonk that left you with a nasty hangover. There is a lot more to wine, however, and its uses are numerous. Its used as medicine, as an offering of peace between tribes, in the celebration of Communion in the church and more. You may have heard that a glass of red wine a day is good for preventing cardio-vascular disease but thats not all its good for. The health benefits of wine have been known since ancient times.
Archaeological evidence shows wine has been a part of culture for thousands of years. Civilisations in the Middle East started to cultivate Vitis vinifera around 5000BC. The Vitis plant family has about 40 members, all of them vigorous climbers. These (initially) wild plants thrive in a temperate climate. The fruits have a fresh-tasting acidity in combination with high levels of sugar. Species from around the Mediterranean are the ancestors of the varieties we see today. Many white grapes originate from Vitis vinifera pontica, a strain originally found in the Caucasus. Vitis vinifera occidentalis, from the Nile Delta, is said to be the forebear of most of our red varieties.
In ancient times, people didnt have the complex equipment we have today. It was purely through trial and error that winemaking came about. The fermentation process was far from perfect and harvests were not consistent. We would have thought the wine of those times undrinkable. Details of ancient winemaking can be found in odd places: the book of Genesis in the Bible mentions that Noah planted a vineyard after the animals disembarked from the Ark. After the harvest, Noah drank his wine and was drunken and uncovered in his tent. This earliest example of public drunkenness is depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted nine sections of the Bible, including Noahs drunken episode, between 1505 and 1512 at the request of Pope Julius II. You can still see them there today.
More records of winemaking were found in 1922 when Egyptologist Howard Carter opened the tomb of Tutankhamun. He came across murals that depict the art of winemaking in great detail. The child Pharaoh Tutankhamun, who became king at the age of nine in 1334 BC, lived in a period when wine was made in a way not dissimilar to our modern methods. Thirty-six amphorae (wine vats made out of clay) were found in the tomb. The amphorae were marked with labels that told the age of the wine as well as the name of the chief vintner. Information on the taste of the wine was also supplied. The amphorae were dug into the cold clay soil, no doubt to encourage fermentation. Other archaeological finds in the Valley of the Kings proved that certain winemakers were in demand, as their names grace more than one lot of amphorae.
Wine moved ahead as civilisations became more refined. Homer, the ancient Greek poet, wrote his lengthy poem The Iliad in the 8th century BC. In it he describes what wine does to his heroes Odysseus and Achilles, and to the villain Cyclops. Another ancient Greek and father of medicine, Hippocrates (460 BC), mentions wine in almost all his recorded memoirs. He recommended it for cooling fevers, convalescence or as a diuretic and made distinctions between the different varieties: soft dark wines were of benefit to the bowel, and harsh white wine was used to expel excess fluids. He stated, If you suspect an overpowering heaviness of the head, or that the brain is affected, there must be total abstinence of wine.
Hippocrates ideas seem simplistic to us now, but he was correct in attributing wine with healing properties. He could not have had any idea which components of wine make it so beneficial to health, but through observation and trial, Hippocrates realised red wines had a digestive action. He was right, of course, as we now know red wine stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid, aiding digestion.
These days, the constituents of wine are well known and we can run chemical tests to find things Hippocrates couldn’t have known. We know wine assists in the conversion of cholesterol. It can act as an antioxidant and helps to prevent atherosclerosis. Wine can decrease macular degeneration of the eye and can kill detrimental bacteria. (Hippocrates was aware of this last fact as he used wine to cure infections and to bathe infected body parts.)
One of the main constituents in red wine is oligomeric proanthocyanosides (OCPs). These are found in the skins and seeds of grapes. They are also found in the bark of the maritime pine originating in the south of France. In 1538, the crew of a British ship was too sick to continue their voyage, suffering from scurvy. Natives gave them a tea they made from the bark of a pine. We now know it was the OCPs in the bark that saved the crew. The OCPs from grapes seem to have a slightly stronger effect, and the two kinds are often combined in supplements. To understand the importance of these OCPs, we first need to look at the winemaking process.
After the fruit is harvested its placed in a crusher. This tank, with a perforated rotating drum inside, separates the juice, skins and seeds from the stems. For red wines, the juice, seeds and skins (called must) go straight into the fermentation tank. For white wines, the must goes into a winepress to remove skin and seeds before it goes into the fermentation tank. Its in this first step where the health benefits differ. Red wine ferments with seeds and skin, and during this two- to four-week process a large quantity of OCPs is released. White wine is filtered before fermenting, so does not become enriched with medicinal powers. After fermentation, the wine is filtered and the red must goes through a press to remove all non-liquid particles. White wines are left to settle first before going through a similar filtering process. The wine is then stored in barrels before it is bottled.
Red wine wonders
Returning to the OCPs, these potent antioxidants are responsible for the colouring of the grapes. We all know antioxidants help us to remain healthy, but what isn’t so well-known is that antioxidants such as OCPs interfere with cross-linking. Cross-linking happens when cells connect to the wrong partner, a process that damages the cells. It plays a big part in cellular ageing of both internal organs and skin. Cross-linking is also a major factor in the degeneration of eyesight and the development of atherosclerosis. The process is also implicated in the development of Alzheimers disease. OCPs have been found to prevent cross-linking.
Additionally, OCPs inhibit the formation of many toxic substances in the body, including histamines. Histamines are involved in triggering allergic responses. (If you react to wine in an allergic way, you are more likely to be responding to the preservatives and not the basic product. If you have this problem, organic wines might be a solution.)
OCPs also improve the strength of capillary tissue and the walls of veins and arteries by enhancing the elasticity of collagen and elastin. This strengthening effect makes OCP supplements popular with people wanting to avoid wrinkle development. This activity of OCPs can also assist in preventing spider veins or varicose veins.
There is another benefit of the antioxidant action of OCPs. It prevents lipid peroxidation. The body needs fatty acids which we get from food and also make in the body. Lipid peroxidation simply means these fatty acids are converted to prostaglandins. COX (CycloOxygenase) enzymes are the key factor to assist with this conversion. Prostaglandins, or PGs, are molecules that act like hormones. There are various types of PGs; some have an anti-inflammatory and healing effect, while others instigate responses such as pain. Prostaglandins contribute to conditions such as arthritis. OCPs inhibit the COX enzymes needed for the synthesis of these PGs. Without these helper enzymes, prostaglandins cannot be made and levels decrease rapidly, which has a positive effect on lowering pain and inflammation.
The OCPs in red wine have more tricks up their sleeve. They can also act as ACE inhibitors. ACE, or angiotensin converting enzyme, is located on the inner lining of blood vessels. When it becomes active, it causes a constriction of those blood vessels and blood pressure rises. By preventing ACE from triggering this pathway, the constriction of blood vessels cannot occur and blood pressure drops. Pharmaceutical companies produce many different ACE inhibitors. Doctors prescribe them often to treat hypertension. But with wine, you have one straight from nature.
OCPs are not the only wine ingredient that interests us. Other constituents of the humble grape have equally stunning health benefits resveratrol, for example. Normally, this component protects Vitis vinifera against diseases; its part of the plants immunity. A plant will only produce it when stress (such as bad weather or bugs) occurs.
The amount of resveratrol is different per species. White wine contains next to nothing. Pinot noir grape skins contain the most (5-10mg/100g, or 0.015mg/L of wine). Resveratrol is a big player in preventing synthesis of the previously mentioned COX enzymes. It also inhibits the herpes simplex virus and the formation of certain types of cancer cells. It prevents blood clotting and thrombosis, and has terrific antioxidant properties.
An important health issue these days is cholesterol. The resveratrol found in grapes has a positive effect on cholesterol. Through chemical conversions in the body, resveratrol helps to increase the good cholesterol, HDL. HDL helps transport cholesterol back to the liver to be excreted. It also helps to prevent heart problems. LDL, the bad cholesterol that transports fat to our fat cells and arterial walls, is decreased by the resveratrol content of red wine. This dual action of resveratrol helps to prevent conditions such as hypercholesterolaemia, atherosclerosis, stroke and heart attack.
A lot of technical data on the health benefits of OCPs has been collected over the past few years. This scientific evidence confirms what Hippocrates and many others knew instinctively: red wines go with meat dishes and white goes with the less fatty protein of fish. Now you know why.
Quercetin and rutin are two other constituents of wine that are important to health. Known as bioflavonoids, they’re found in numerous health supplements. Both are well known for their potent antioxidant and anti-allergic actions. Catechin is another free radical scavenger present in wine. Last, but not least, chromium can be found in grapes, too. This micro-mineral plays a part in sugar metabolism, cholesterol balance and circulation.
In moderate amounts, wine appears to increase energy levels. It does so by tricking the central nervous system into thinking youre not really tired. Wine accelerates the conversion of stored glycogen to glucose, which contributes to the energetic feeling experienced after a glass of wine. (This rapid conversion can, however, lead to elevated blood sugar levels.) Alternatively, when large quantities of wine are consumed, it will act as a central nervous system depressant.
All in all, its clear why wine can be accredited with many health benefits. Perhaps now you can open that next bottle with an even bigger smile on your face. Just remember: moderation is the keyword when it comes to alcohol use; and, for those who prefer to avoid alcohol, red grape juice has the same health benefits. Cheers.